Remaking the University

Remaking the University

Jeffrey Williams: Remaking the University

An annual conference put together by graduate students and adjuncts at the University of Minnesota has become one of the best clearinghouses for what?s going on in higher education. It brings together an international and sometimes eclectic group of those concerned about higher education, combining academic talks with presentations by activists, workshops, practical suggestions, and a lot of discussion. Overall, it focuses on how the university might be remade more democratically.

The conference originally arose out of a unionization effort at Minnesota (one that ?mostly failed?). The first conference, in April 2008, was called ?Rethinking the University.? One of its notable moments was hearing from graduate students from NYU, who had just concluded their own labor struggle (several of the contributors to the subsequent The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace spoke). Another was that it had a good number of panels featuring staff as well as graduate students from the University of Minnesota. One intriguing talk by a grad student, John Conley, recommended slowing down our work to resist speed-up. (I spoke on student debt, related to Dissent essays I?ve published on the topic.)

A novel idea came from a group of grad students from the University of North Carolina, the Counter-Cartographies Collective (3C’s?not to be confused with the journal College Composition and Communication). They spoke about their effort to map the UNC campus and figure out what each part of it does. Contemporary campuses have moved from Jefferson?s commons-centered ?academical village? to the current agglomeration of what one architectural historian calls the ?academic mall.? 3C’s colors in this kind of schematic with the uses of buildings and where their funding comes from. One could map any campus in this way, which would be surprisingly revealing about the money trail and where our campuses really put their resources.

That event, which coalesced a good deal of energy, led to a sequel, ?Reworking the University,? in April 2009. One of its highlights was a panel of those at Antioch College. Antioch, which was founded in 1852 and has a reputation as a classic American liberal arts college (Horace Mann was its first president), experienced a ?restructuring? in 2008. The new administration basically hijacked the brand as Antioch University, spawning cheap satellite campuses using correspondence faculty (I confess I once served as such a faculty person, at the request of a student, for which I received $500 for directing an independent study on the history of literary criticism). Then, citing low funding, the administration closed the actual historical campus and fired all faculty, tenured or not. But a good many of the faculty remained, creating from the ground up what they called the Non-Stop Institute in Yellow Springs, OH (they were banned from using the name Antioch). It still exists, although they, and a strong alumni group, recently reached an agreement with the administration to buy the actual campus and reinstitute Antioch College.

This past April saw the third installment, ?Beneath the University, the Commons.? (I gave a talk on the need for cultural critics to engage with policy?which was seen as a reformist rather than radical solution.) It featured speakers from student movements in the California system, which has experienced sit-ins and various kinds of demonstrations over the past year. It also featured several members of what is called the Edu-factory collective, a mostly online group led by several Italian intellectuals. They call for a radical remaking of the university, effectively dispensing with universities as they exist as irreparably given over to private capital; instead, they envision the multitude of the disenfranchised reclaiming the ?commons? that has been gobbled up by capitalism and forging a new institution from underneath (hence the title of the conference). I have to say, they were perhaps the most abstract of the participants, with little practical account of how this might work, as the conference otherwise has stressed, but I?ll talk more about Edu-factory in another post.

Information and videos of the panels are available here. There are tentative plans for another conference next year.